Pro-Palestine Columbia Students Attacked with Israeli Chemical, University Administration Fails to Act
Date: 
January 31 2024
blog Series: 

On Jan. 19, at 1 p.m., Columbia students gathered in front of Low Memorial Library to peacefully protest Israel’s ongoing genocide against the Palestinian people in Gaza, which has resulted in the murder of more than 26,000 Palestinians and the injury of 63,000.

According to a joint Instagram post made by Columbia University’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) chapters on Jan. 20, student protesters were sprayed with a chemical weapon known as “Skunk.” The perpetrators, the post stated, were reportedly identified as former Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) soldiers.

“Skunk is a foul-smelling liquid that has been described as a cross between ‘dead animal and human excrement.’ The Israeli Occupation Forces developed Skunk in 2008 as a crowd-control weapon for use against Palestinians,” the Instagram post read.

Students and users on Twitter were able to identify the perpetrators’ faces, names, and affiliation with the IOF.

“We have identified two of the perpetrators, and we have confirmation that both are former IOF soldiers and [are] currently Columbia students. They were wearing… keffiyehs to spray protesters discreetly,” the Instagram post also indicated that dozens of students sprayed by Skunk offered testimony describing how their clothes and hair were saturated after the initial burst at the protest. Students reported burning eyes and nausea as aftereffects of the attack.

 

An Israeli Occupation Force officer spraying Skunk on a protester holding a banner.
Photo courtesy of Maryam Ibqal

 

Soph Askanese, a student organizer with Columbia’s chapter of JVP said in a phone call that students noticed the two individuals repeatedly putting on and removing their keffiyehs while “wander[ing] in and out of the crowd.”

“At first, people thought there was a sewage burst or a dead animal nearby. Someone even joked it could be a stink bomb,” Askanese recalled.

Askanese and other JVP students experienced verbal harassment from the attackers after the initial release of the chemical agent.

“The two men called one of our friends a ‘disgusting, fake jew.’ [They spoke] in Hebrew and said [our friend] needed to ‘get in touch with their Judaism’ and asked what had happened to them.”

Cameron Jones, another JVP organizer, told Palestine Square that this harassment continued as multiple Jewish students holding a banner reading “CU Jews for Ceasefire” were accosted by the men.

Maryam Alwan, a Palestinian student organizer with Columbia’s SJP chapter, told Palestine Square “[i]t seemed that [the perpetrators] targeted speakers and known members of SJP and JVP out of the whole coalition because they were some of the most impacted.”

Alwan said that the attackers utilized a tactical strategy employed by the IOF in Palestine.

“[The perpetrators were] attempting to blend in [with the crowd], similar to the way in which Mista'arvim do so in Palestine.” Mista’arvim are Israeli agents who pose as Palestinians.

The university’s SJP and JVP chapters contend that the use of Skunk reveals imported use of an illegal weapon, the carrying out of a hate crime, and the destruction of over a dozen students’ property.

Columbia’s SJP and JVP have identified that the deployment of this military-grade weapon on a college campus means that it cannot be removed from hair, clothes, skin, or belongings without supplies that are “intentionally not available to the general public.”

Askanese began experiencing headaches after the protest and heard from friends in attendance that they were experiencing similar and worse symptoms. Askanese noted that another organizer attempted to wash her coat, but without the supplies to remove the chemical, it only further spread.

“A group of us gathered together at a Shabbat dinner that night, and that’s when we started investigating and trying to figure out what happened. We heard from Palestinian [students] that they believed the smell to be Skunk because they had smelled it before when it was used on them by Israeli soldiers in Palestine.”

At least eight people have been hospitalized, others have been injured, and multiple students have been diagnosed with chemical inhalation while in hospital.

Layla Saliba, a Palestinian American graduate student at Columbia, reported in a statement to Palestine Square that she experienced abdominal pain, nausea, fatigue, and headaches as ongoing symptoms. After going to urgent care and Columbia’s student health center, Saliba was diagnosed with exposure to a hazardous chemical.

After several days, her symptoms have yet to abate.

“I am very tired, my skin still feels like it is burning, even after 11 showers. [This] aggravated my autoimmune condition.”

Maryam Iqbal, a Kashmiri student organizer with Columbia’s SJP chapter, was similarly hospitalized, taken to the Emergency Room from the Barnard dorms in an ambulance.

Iqbal was diagnosed with chemical inhalation while in the hospital. Before being hospitalized, she says her symptoms included nausea, lightheadedness, and tightness in her chest. Once admitted to the ER, doctors found that Iqbal had an abnormally high heart rate and gave her nausea medication through an IV.

“[A]fter hospitalization, I’ve had severe brain fog and [have] been crying a lot for no reason, which I [normally] don’t do,” Iqbal told Palestine Square in a statement.

This incident comes on the heels of hundreds of reports to Columbia administration by students experiencing “unrelenting harassment” from other students as well as from faculty members and administrators. Columbia University has yet to publicly comment on any of it beyond a brief Instagram post shared on Jan. 22 vaguely alluding to “incidents of great concern reported in connection with a protest.”

Askanese said that since October, students have been reporting experiencing harassment to the administration without receiving a public response or action.

“We have been documenting so many incidents of harassment — students getting spat on, getting their hijabs ripped off, students have been receiving death threats.”

Jones added that on Oct. 12, at the first pro-Palestine protest on Columbia’s campus since Israel began bombing Gaza, a Columbia administrator wished death upon pro-Palestine students, saying, “I hope every one of these people dies.”

“I feel even more scared for my safety, especially since [the Jan. 19 attackers] have not been arrested yet,” Jones said. “[With] the lack of severity in the university’s response — or the lack of response at all — I feel the violence will escalate. Which means more people can commit violent acts thinking they will be able to get off scot-free,” Jones said.

Alwan shared Jones’ concerns, noting she has been receiving death threats for months and feels that “the perpetrators are getting away with [attacking students]”.

SJP and JVP desperately laid out the danger faced by students as the university continues to be silent: “The reality is that Palestinian students and their allies at Columbia University are still entirely vulnerable to the attacks of Israeli soldiers while on a college campus in America. Closing the gates, as Columbia loves to do, would not even protect us from these attacks since this is a student at this institution.”

Iqbal noted that for Palestinian students, there is no reprieve from violence.

“Palestinian students at Columbia cannot escape the violence perpetrated by the Israeli government on campus. Columbia has created a hostile environment for their students, where they cannot escape the horrors of the Israeli occupation and are forced to relive [them],” Iqbal said.

“Students have been hospitalized following this attack for chemical inhalation and other medical issues following this attack, two of whom already had chronic illnesses. Columbia University refuses to understand that the only way they can protect their students is to stop funneling IOF soldiers onto our campus through the Tel Aviv University dual degree program and halt any and all support (financial and other) to the state of Israel, the developers of the weapon used to attack students on their campus.”

 


Images posted on Columbia SJP's Instagram account on Jan. 21 and 22 of SJP and JVP students who have been hospitalized.

 

Alwan spoke on the inescapable and cyclical nature of trauma inherent to being Palestinian at Columbia.

“[It] feels like constantly having to check the news, check in with family to see if they are still alive, check to see if we or others have been doxxed, check to see if we or others have received a disciplinary threat — and then feeling guilty for even thinking about ourselves in the first place and continuing to speak out. It feels like an endless cycle of trauma that is facilitated by the administration as they keep erasing our existence and as we keep fighting back.”

This most recent incident doesn’t just impact current students. For Palestinians like Saliba, generations-long hostility toward Palestinians has gone unchecked at the university.

“My baba [father] is very worried. He feels that there is nowhere safe for Palestinians. Even at an Ivy League school, known for Palestinian professors like Edward Said, we still experience a hostile environment with frequent bullying and harassment that goes unaddressed.”

Palestinian students, says Jones, “are experiencing and being forced to relive the horrors they underwent at the hands of the IOF and Israel.”

Jannine Masoud, a Palestinian alumna and co-founder of the Columbia University Apartheid Divest Coalition, said in a phone call with Palestine Square that anti-Palestinian hate crimes are not new for Columbia’s campus but are the historic norm:

“There were far fewer eyes on what was happening to Palestinians [when I was a student], and while there is absolutely a cone of silence that is really enforced with very intensive forms of censorship and backlash, the eyes and conversation around [Palestine] were far less developed,” Masoud said. “So all these things were happening and have been happening for decades.”

Masoud recalled another incident involving a former IOF soldier assaulting Palestinian students during Israeli Apartheid Week at Columbia in 2016, naming a double standard that has existed at the university since she was a student.

“The university selectively chooses which concerns to take seriously, and far and wide that has been to privilege the nebulous feelings of anxiety of Jewish Zionist students [over] the real and credible threats [made toward] Palestinian students and their allies on campus.”

Alwan identified the same double standard used by the university administration to prioritize the safety of certain students over others.

“Our student groups, including a Jewish one, were disbanded [in November] due to allegations of antisemitism and [allegations of] us being a threat,” Alwan said. “Meanwhile, we’re the ones whose lives are in actual danger for simply speaking out in support of Palestinian liberation. There are congressional hearings based on the wording of chants and radio silence when students are attacked with a foreign [chemical] weapon on campus. It is all connected.”

Alia Sheikh*, a member of National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP), the parent organization that advises individual, autonomous chapters across the nation, says that this isn’t the first time NSJP has had to intervene.

NSJP has reportedly been in close contact with Columbia’s SJP chapter leaders, checking on the students regularly and offering personal and organizational support. “National SJP has been working with Columbia students to uplift their existing initiatives and demands,” remarked Sheikh.

“SJP organizers have reported threats, harassment, and doxxing to Columbia for months, with little to no response from the university. Students are frustrated, and rightfully so,” Sheikh said. “What will it take for Columbia to take their concerns seriously? They have been repeatedly ignored, silenced, and repressed by university administrators.”

Sheikh emphasized the unshakable attitude of student organizers amid facing hate crimes and lack of administrative response.

“They are determined, steadfast, and fearless. They are determined to continue to advance their demands and fight for Palestine on their campus, and they will not be stopped — not by administrators committed to their silencing, professors who publicly smear them, or Zionists who fear their power,” Sheikh added. “They are an example of revolutionary courage and are an inspiration to the entire movement for Palestinian freedom.” 

Both SJP and JVP have demanded that Columbia University launch a formal investigation into the use of Skunk on its campus as well as take action against the students who deployed it. The student chapters have also expressed concerns about the escalation of anti-Palestinian hate crimes on campus, iterating fear at the potentiality of a student being killed as a result of inaction by the university administration.

In the days since the attack, Columbia has internally launched an investigation in collaboration with the Police Department into the incident and has reportedly barred an unknown number of those accused of spraying Skunk from campus. Despite this, students say they’ve seen the perpetrators on campus, anyway. Saliba said that it took the administration until Monday, Jan. 22 to respond and that students were left to deal with the aftereffects of chemical inhalation on their own.

Dennis A. Mitchell, the interim provost of Columbia University, sent out a campuswide email on Jan. 22. The email itself makes no mention of the events of the 19th.

 



The email sent by Dennis A. Mitchell to Columbia’s student body.
Screenshots courtesy of Cameron Jones.

 

Askanese underscored that the assailants of this attack are former IOF soldiers who are also current Columbia University students. 

“Columbia has a dual degree program with Tel Aviv University, and we have demanded and called since the beginning of this program for [it] not to happen, and now for [Columbia University] to cut all material and financial ties to the state of Israel. What this program ends up doing is shuttling a large population of former and current IOF soldiers onto our campus. We end up going to class and facing harassment from IOF soldiers.” 

Columbia students and alumni have continued to publicize the anti-Palestinian hate crimes that have occurred on campus, centering the incident on the 19th.

Columbia University Apartheid Divest Coalition authored a statement published by Mondoweiss on Jan. 23, echoing a list of demands, including that Columbia “end [the] IOF-general Studies program between Columbia and Tel Aviv University.”

Both National SJP and Columbia Alumni for Palestine issued their own statements via Instagram on Jan. 23, echoing the concerns of the coalition. Masoud noted that “alumni, including myself, have pledged to withhold donations [to Columbia] until the university promises to protect its Palestinian students.” 

The student call for Columbia to end its dual degree program with Israel isn’t just a passive one; Askanese holds Columbia University responsible for financing the creation of weapons being used against its own students.

“[T]he university is complicit because of their investment in Israel weapons manufacturers — money they are using to develop weapons like Skunk.” 

Masoud noted that Columbia has “students coming from Israel immediately after their military service, where they are trained to harass, attack, suppress and abuse Palestinians, and then they come to our campus and we see they are doing the same thing to our Palestinian students.”

Iqbal said that students have been trying to convey this reality to mainstream media but that their experiences have been downplayed and disconnected from the issue of Palestine altogether. 

“[W]e’ve been saying this to all the news outlets, and [journalists have been] cut[ting] out the connection to Palestine and try[ing] to depoliticize [what has happened].”

Alwan had the same frustrations. 

“I can’t lie — seeing the double standard with the media’s treatment of this situation, similar to what they’re doing in Palestine as we speak, has been completely disheartening and disillusioning…We had to post on social media and beg for coverage, and even when we got some coverage, reporters were focusing on the symptoms and ignoring the bigger picture.”

Despite the compounding anti-Palestinian harassment faced by student organizers on Columbia’s campus, the determination of student groups remains unfaltering as the pro-Palestine community of Columbia rallies behind student organizers.

“This incident has only emboldened me and showed me that I have to work past my fear and continue to protest Israeli genocide, apartheid, and occupation,” said Askanese.

“I don’t want to see this happening on my campus. I don’t want to see this happening in my name. And I don’t want to see this happening anywhere.”

Alwan shared Askanese’s sentiments, refusing to be silent in the face of ongoing violence: 

 “[T]his repression campaign is meant to stop us from speaking out, so we refuse to…[E]very time they try to silence us, it only encourages me to speak out more because they only stoop to such outright vile tactics when they know that we’re succeeding in changing the narrative.”


*This is a pseudonym. 
About The Author: 

Anna Rajagopal is a South Asian Jewish organizer and writer based in Houston, Texas. Anna's work focuses on the geographies of colonized identity under and in resistance to empire.

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